What to expect when you’re meditating?

I have worked with many people starting a meditation practice in the last several years, I have heard from quite a few people about their first experiences with meditation.  Mine personally over a decade ago was:
“Sit?!?  Why would I do that?  I am strapped for time to get everything I need done.”

A compelling example of a first meditation experience is included in the movie version of “Eat, Pray Love”:

Experiences beginning a meditation practice vary quite a bit.  We’re all different, we come to the practice with different life experiences and dispositions, and every day is different.  It is helpful to be aware of some of the common experiences during meditation sittings so you will know that they are typical and to have some potential tools in your toolbelt to approach them:

  • Distraction.  Probably the most common experience is that as soon as you sit still an item you forgot to do on your “To Do” list will pop up front and center in front of your eyes.  Our minds do that.  Something that has been rehearsed and repeated but pushed aside by busyness now finds the space in stillness to present itself and grab your attention.  This one is pretty easy to handle.  For example one approach at home is to notice it with friendliness (saying silently to myself, “Thank you for being helpful and reminding me!”) and keeping a notepad by me to take a moment to jot it down so that I do not give it any immediate energy, confident that I have it noted for later if necessary, and return to the focus of my meditation.
  • Criticism and judgment. “I am not good at this.”  Certainly we each have many different temperaments and experiences.  Most humans by nature are easily-distracted and better at “doing” than “being.”   The good news is that you are unique and special; there is no one like you.  The other good news is that having a busy mind filled with thoughts is a very common experience of being human.  Congratulations, you are human!  The essence of a concentration practice is to notice my distraction, let it go, and return to my point of focus (for example, experiencing my breath).
  • Fear.  “Ahh!!! I can’t handle this.”  Sometimes scary emotions or thoughts arise and we see them clearly right in front of our face.  Most often they are things that we distracted ourselves from facing directly.  When I am busy, I am distracted from facing some of the difficult content of my life.  I can remain distracted and unaware.  If what comes up is based on past trauma, Buddhist meditation should only be one part of your journey; in addition I advise professional support from a qualified therapist.  If the difficult things are not due to past trauma, then it is important to keep in mind that with meditation you are in the driver’s seat.  With the support and guidance from an experienced teacher you can learn to control the level of intimacy & duration experiencing the difficult content; and you can learn to lean into the difficult feelings with curiosity and compassion.
  • Confusion and doubt.  “I don’t know what to do.”  Sitting still may do some good but meditation is a practice with many variants beyond simply sitting still.  If meditation was equivalent to sitting still then housecats & sloths might be the most enlightened beings on our planet.  Instead think of the various types of meditation as practices, much like practicing the scales of a piano to develop dexterity and muscle memory, practicing footwork in tennis drills, or developing strength by high-intensity interval training.  Buddhist meditation practices strengthen your mind!  If you don’t know what to do, there are variety of great resources available including books such as Mindfulness in Plain English or How to Meditate, many freely available instructional videos such as the amazing introduction provided by Rodney Smith and the Seattle Insight Meditation Society.
  • Boredom or sleepiness.  If you encounter drowsiness, one option is try a different time of day such as first thing when you wake up!

“O Nobly Born, O you of glorious origins, remember your radiant true nature, the essence of mind. Trust it. Return to it. It is home.” – The Tibetan Book of the Dead

“May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.” – Mantra translated from Sanskrit

1 thought on “What to expect when you’re meditating?”

  1. This list sounds sooooo familiar from when I started meditating. Actually, as I’m typing this I’m realizing I still encounter this stuff after 2+ years of meditating daily. Gotta love our brains!

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